Why The Most Civilised Of Men Felt Like A Fraud

James Stourton's biography of Kenneth Clark offers insights into a life riddled with paradox

Frances Spalding

Kenneth Clark, that great cultural panjandrum who towered over the art world during the central part of the 20th century, continues to surprise. He should by now be deeply familiar. Not only does his name appear frequently in the literature on modern British art, but two years ago Robert Cumming edited the Clark/Berenson correspondence and Tate Britain mounted a major show tracking Clark’s public life through art, both of which were reviewed in this journal. To coincide with the exhibition, the BBC commissioned an hour-long Culture Show special which was broadcast at prime viewing time on a Saturday evening. Before this, a previous biography, by Meryle Secrest, whose name offers the unfortunate anagram “Merely Secrets”, had added more details about Clark’s private life than is found in his two-volume autobiography, which in itself offered prose that is as easily consumed, and has all the subtle inflections of a rare madeira. 

So it is surprising that in every one of the 37 chapters forming James Stourton’s new biography there are moments when the reader is startled by insights or facts that affirm the conundrum Clark represents. It is well known that his family’s wealth came from the development of English cotton and the invention of the cotton spool: four generations back James Clark and his brothers had built the enormous factory that established Paisley as a world leader in the manufacture of cotton thread. Few people are given, as the young Kenneth was, a hotel on Cap Martin, near Menton, when they come of age. No doubt the security of wealth was a factor in what seemed to many his supremely patrician stance, made familiar through numerous photographs, including that of him aged 30 as the youngest-ever Director of the National Gallery, and later through his television appearances, most memorably in the 13 BBC Two programmes that constituted Civilisation. Yet the life of this inscrutable man was riddled with contradictions and paradoxes.

Admittedly, he built up for himself an armoury of interests and ideas. If schooling at Winchester had left him with a lifelong horror of upper-class tribalism, it was also where he was first shown reproductions of Piero della Francesca’s art, the artist whose portraits of the  Duke and Duchess of Urbino in the Uffizi later brought him to his knees. At Oxford, he began reading Ruskin and Pater and found in Roger Fry’s essays in Vision and Design the argument that art is not a social asset, confined to the few, but related to deep-seated human needs. From then on, as Stourton I think rightly claims, Clark understood that a passion for art made him spiritually indestructible.

It was probably at Oxford that he realised “I am the least clubbable of men.” Although he made lasting friendships with Maurice Bowra and John Sparrow, whose lives continued to be intertwined with Oxford, he limited his sociability with others in order to make a systematic examination of the Ashmolean’s great collection of drawings. It was the Keeper of Fine Art, at this museum, who introduced him to Bernard Berenson. This led to his appointment at I Tatti, outside Florence, as a kind of apprentice to Berenson, then in need of help with a new edition of his Florentine Drawings. Berenson thought Clark “thorough and painstaking”, also “genial and loveable and always consumed with intellectual passion”. His wife Mary put it more punchily: “Nothing is lost on that boy.”

Both agreed that Clark was “marvellously cultivated”, and Clark felt so at home at I Tatti, amid the beauty of the house and its contents and its cosmopolitan visitors, that he felt he had finally become part of a community. Later difficulties with Berenson never dimmed Clark’s sense of his debt to the older man, and the way that the master’s conversation at mealtimes and on walks had vastly broadened his education. But Stourton astutely throws in Cyril Connolly’s observation of Berenson: “He talks the whole time and drowns everybody else, and though he has enormous and universal knowledge and is excessively stimulating, half his remarks are preposterously conceited and the other half entirely insincere.” It was Mary Berenson who arrived at the conclusion that her husband needed devotion and Clark’s self-centredness made him an imperfect acolyte.

Certainly, there were throughout his life noticeable lapses in expected behaviour. For all his cultivation of mind and discernment of achievement in others, he never attended memorial services, except when he was commanded to do so as a representative of the Queen, as in the case of Benjamin Britten and Graham Sutherland. In 1938, a cry for a renewal of confidences from Berenson, brought the reply from Clark that he “came from an undemonstrative family and my feelings are as stiff as an unused limb”. When he married Jane Martin, he wanted to do so in a register office, but the bride’s mother objected: the ceremony, which lasted 14 minutes, took place in St Peter’s, Eaton Square, and the very few guests were mostly Clark family servants. All dispersed after the service, leaving Kenneth and his new wife to have lunch with her parents in a gloomy hotel. “No organ, no champagne and only half-a-dozen handshakes: I call that a success,” he afterwards wrote, as if he had escaped some form of contamination.

But what was he was protecting? A harsh view might point to his dread of boredom. Stourton notes that Clark never wasted a minute more than was needed with people, subjects and institutions. But alongside this ran his unfailing commitment to public service. In addition to the National Gallery, he served as Keeper of Fine Art at the Ashmolean and Surveyor of the Royal Collection; he also conceived and chaired during the Second World War the War Artists’ Advisory Committee and was in charge of the Film Division, both of which came under the Ministry of Information. He helped set up and later chaired the Arts Council of Great Britain, and before that had helped found its predecessor, the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. He continued to sit on numerous committees, in this way working for, among others, the Royal Opera House, the National Theatre, the British Museum, also taking on, in 1954, the Chairmanship of the Independent Television Authority. If we keep in mind the extra load added by his lecturing, writing and travelling, the less harsh conclusion is that his perfunctoriness was inevitable: there simply was little time to waste.

Stourton’s life is revealing of Clark’s ambivalent attitude to scholarship. “I had a taste of pure scholarship last night, when I attended a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries, and it will do me for years. I would rather go to church.” After a mass of disputes around the 1930 Italian exhibition at the Royal Academy, which Clark had helped to create, he was relieved to be offered the National Gallery, partly because, as he wrote, it “gets me out of the Burlington world”, by which he meant the Burlington Magazine, Burlington House and the Burlington Fine Arts Club.

From then on he was never entirely to have the support of the art history establishment. He was always politically left of centre, and the influence of Ruskin and Fry left him in sympathy with Morris’s famous cry: “What business have we with art at all unless all can share it?” The first evidence of his popularising instincts came in 1938 when he gained permission from the Trustees to open the National Gallery at 8 a.m. on FA Cup Final day, an action that, as Neil MacGregor has remarked, “did a great deal to put the gallery right at the heart of the nation’s affections”. This was more immediately noticeable when war broke out. He removed all the pictures to safety, but, unlike John Rothenstein at the Tate Gallery, did not close the National Gallery, but opened it to various uses, such as the daily lunchtime concerts given by Myra Hess and others, at which German music was frequently played. He also invited visitors to inform him as to which pictures they most missed. These would then be brought back one at a time to be “Picture of the Month”. He also did much to raise interest in contemporary art by holding exhibitions of recent pictures by war artists — among them Henry Moore’s Shelter drawings, which had a powerful appeal.

By the end of the war Clark had demonstrated that there was a much broader public receptive to art than had previously been assumed. He retired from the National Gallery in order to write and lecture. He held the post of Slade Lecturer at Oxford for not one but three years, and in the first of these used material that would eventually become the book Landscape into Art. Attendance at these lectures very quickly rose to 500, requiring a move from the Taylorian Institute to the Oxford Playhouse. But this was nothing compared with the audiences he was to reach through television.

After he accepted the chairmanship of ITA, Clark had been booed in the Athenaeum Club, Stourton tells us, quietly but unmistakeably. Clark certainly knew the dangers of television. He hoped for a degree of “vital vulgarity” from ITA but was appalled by the “avalanche of vulgarity” it produced, and must have made his opinions clear as after three years his contract was not renewed. Yet before he left an idea had been mooted that he should do for television an arts programme on great artists. Eventually David Attenborough, in his then role as Controller of BBC Two, took hold of this idea, and it grew to be 13 programmes on Western European art and architecture. The choice of director was Michael Gill, who insisted Clark could not do these programmes in the studio but needed to be on location. Initially there seemed to be scant meeting of minds, and Clark, made to feel square and stuffy, suggested John Berger might be better suited to the job. Humphrey Burton, then the BBC’s head of music and arts, likened the situation to the mating of pandas.

Civilisation brought Clark 11 honorary degrees and raised him to the House of Lords. It not only established a new genre of “authored” series, still popular today, but it also raised the profile of the BBC as the greatest maker of documentaries in the world. Meanwhile Clark, after making a public speech to promote the series in Washington DC’s National Gallery, where he had been rapturously received by a roaring crowd, afterwards disappeared to the gents and wept uncontrollably for a quarter of an hour. Adulation made him feel humiliated and a fraud. The curious thing is that having so brilliantly distilled his passions, interests and knowledge into a form that could be widely understood, he was unable to accept public approval. He afterwards wrote in his memoirs: “My whole life has been a harmless confidence trick.” If this is more than the English habit of self-deprecation, then, as James Stourton remarks in this finely nuanced biography, the confidence of youth had indeed been followed by the doubt of age.

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